What Happens Before, During, and After You Launch a Category (with Amplitude's Jennifer Johnson)
Tricia Gellman: Hi, everyone. I'm Tricia Gellman, and I am the CMO of Drift. Welcome back to CMO Conversations. In today's episode, I have Jennifer Johnson, AKA, JJ. The CMO of Amplitude. In today's show, we're talking about category creation, which JJ would say is her jam. By that I mean, she's done it a million times. She's known for it across the globe. She even worked with the people from Play Bigger, which is the book you can read about what you should do if you want to create a category. In this episode, we talk about what is a category. Should you create a category? Why should you create a category? What are the components of creating a category? And what is the hard work you're going to need to do as a marketing leader if you set out to create a category? JJ has so much great advice to share on this topic. Let's jump in. Let me introduce you to JJ. JJ, why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Jennifer Johnson: Thank you for having me. And hello. I'm really excited today. So I am JJ, Jennifer Johnson. But most people actually know me as JJ, so we can just call me JJ. I am a four time chief marketing officer in enterprise software. Most currently I joined Amplitude back in October. And I know we're talking about category design today. So I'm really excited to talk through my journeys at this point on category design. But I love anything that has to do with CMO Conversations. It's a topic that I am very passionate about. So thank you for having me.
Tricia Gellman: Excellent. Yeah. I mean, I started this podcast, because I saw that the landscape for marketers is changing a lot. And I thought by talking to the CMOs, we could cover all the different things that are happening. Some people are a little bit more into metrics and analytics, and tech stack. Some people are more into people, and what does it take in terms of mental health and motivating your team. And today we're really going to talk a lot about category creation, because that's sort of your jam. But let's anchor ourselves in the definition of category creation. When you say category creation, what is it that you really mean by category creation?
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. So the most classic external definition is, you are creating a market category. And what does that mean? That means that any company, especially us that live in the more of the startup land or more disruptive companies, we're disrupting something. We're disrupting an incumbent market. We're disrupting an incumbent vendor. Maybe we're disrupting an incumbent way of doing nothing or something. You're always disrupting something. So category design is really carving out that place in the world of how you are different. The problem that you're solving and why you are doing something different that will change the way that people work or live. Now, that is the scientific, external definition of what category design is. The art of category design is the internal piece. Which is what people don't really think about, but what it actually is internally, it's a decision- making framework. So any of us that have been in C- suite executive roles, we know that getting everyone in the executive team rowing in the same direction and aligned, and there's usually if there's six people around the table, there's six very strong opinions. And they probably don't always align. And so what category design actually does is put the company and the leadership team on a set of decisions to make about who the company is, what the vision is going forward. It helps provide a framework and a container for product and partnership strategy, corporate development strategy. It really is a driving force. So I always say the science is, it's not easy. The science and the art neither are easy. But the art is actually the beauty of it. Because we all know what happens when you get the company and the entire executive team aligned and rowing in the same direction. That's when the magic happens.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. I mean, I think the point about the alignment is really, really key. Because I think a lot of people think category creation is just a few words, and then you can have product marketers or your brand team, or whoever that is come up with those words. But I think that's what we want to get into sort of right away. There's the process of aligning the team around the category," what are those words? Why are they the words?" Who are you going after, et cetera. That's the category design. And then there is the sort of actual category building work, right? You don't have a category if you're just on your own, right? We can all fly our own individual flags. That's nice. But like you, I kind of need to have a bunch of other people in a category, by definition is not a category if you're just hanging out on your own. And so I wanted to kind of hear from you, do you have a checklist for each of these? And I think we've talked on the show a little bit with some other people about designing a category and coming up with the messaging and positioning. But one thing that I've seen, because we did in July, August timeframe come up with a new category is, there's a lot of work for building and sort of recruiting the market into the category. So maybe if you have a checklist for that, or you could comment on what it takes.
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. So the reason that the CMO is usually the quarterback, so to speak, of category design is because it is something that touches every function across the company. And marketing is usually I call that that hub, central organization point. It also has a very direct tie into the company narrative. Because if you think about the initial building of the category, the core deliverables are the point of view. Really, that is your narrative as a company. It is who you are, what you stand for, what problem you're solving, your answer to it, all of that. And that really becomes your company's story. So the beginning phases of category design, it does look more like branding, because it is. Because you're actually redefining who you are as a company. But it's not just the point of view. There's usually what we call a blueprint. And that blueprint is effectively the marketecture of your category, to use a term I know we're all very familiar with. It's really the visual representation of all of the inputs and outputs, and your partnership ecosystem, and your product capabilities, and how data and products work together, and data flows. It's the visual representation of how your category becomes real. And that truly is a partnership with marketing and the product organization. Because you want to make sure that you're building a blueprint that is reflective of the product today. And also where the product is going tomorrow. It's flexible that you can grow into it over time. And then the third component, which is part of that blueprint is the ecosystem. And sometimes people forget about that. But it's really important, because no single company can build a category on their own. There needs to be other companies that are part of it. But also there needs to be a partner ecosystem around it. So the partners that you decide to go to market with and why, whether they're solution partners or technology integration partners, or the like, that actually is... The category actually helps prioritize who you're going to go to market with. And if you're at a point where you're going to do M& A, corporate development, right? This also can provide a structure for that. So these core deliverables are kind of the checklist of building and launching. But then I always say... I think as marketers, or even as companies, we think," Well, marketing is launching it like you would launch a campaign," which has kind of a finite start and stop date. Or launching a product, which is a big moment in time. And obviously you continue to do demand around it. But there's a moment in time of a launch. And the category can not be looked at as a moment in time. Because if that moment in time, if people view it as a moment in time, then it's going to be the marketer who's on the top of the mountain with the flag, and everybody else is going to be moved on to the next thing. And it will become just a branding exercise, and just a campaign. So I think it's important to understand that the beginning does look more like a branding exercise. Because in a lot of ways, it is. But it has to evolve from that into your strategy. So if you think about having a conversation with the market, which that is part of our job as marketers, it creates a framework for every time you launch a product, every time you go to market with a new partnership, every time you decide to acquire a company. Every time you do anything in your business, it doesn't have to necessarily be product related, it kind of should flow into this notion of the category.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. And I think that goes back to the messaging hierarchy, right? I think there's a marketecture, but there's also a key messaging hierarchy. And that's one of the things we've seen with the launch of our new category in the summer is, how does this fit into the category as we talk about launching this new product, or as we talk about this new campaign? And making sure everything always ladders up.
Jennifer Johnson: And I think one other point I would make on how do you know it's being successful, and is there a checklist? You also have to understand all the key stakeholders. So you have emotion with press, you have emotion with analysts. Look, in know we'll get to that in a minute. You have emotion with customers and partners. You might have emotion with investors if you're pre IPO or a public company. And you have to understand what you're trying to do with each of those stakeholders. And take customers as an example, you're moving them from the current way to the new way. That could be moving them off of their existing technology. That could be giving them a new skill. It could actually be creating a new organization, a new function in the organization, or some organizational shift. When you see like the rise of a new role, that usually means there's a category somewhere around it or that's driving it. And so I think it's about understanding, how do you move customers. But it's not just about moving customers by bringing them technology. It's actually giving them a whole new career path. And the best categories are the ones that elevate the strategic importance of the role and what they're doing. Look at marketing automation and the rise of marketing operations, and the demand generation revenue- minded CMOs that came out of that whole notion of category design. That is a prime example of elevating the role of the CMO, and a whole new rise of the new type of CMO being revenue- minded, back when Eloqua and Marketo were just building their groundswell. What was that? I don't even know what, a decade or more ago at this point?
Tricia Gellman: Yeah, I don't know. It makes me feel old.
Jennifer Johnson: I know.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. I mean, I also think a good point about this is, it's not a one- time thing. If we look at Drift, for example. Drift started and really out the gate said," We're going to create a new category." And so conversation marketing was born. And if you look at what conversational marketing was six years ago compared to now, we're actually in the process of going back and looking at the book that we published on conversational marketing. And deciding," Do we need to refresh and do a version two of the book? Or do we just do an intro chapter that explains what's happened in the market since this started?" Because what we anticipated conversational marketing being, which was more about leads and kind of playing off of marketing automation in that category, is kind of not where marketers are anymore. And now we're into this new thing, which is revenue. And so we've built a bigger category, which includes conversational marketing. But it's now like you said, elevating the CMO to be about revenue and actually being together with revenue, with the rest of the C- suite in terms of product sales, service and marketing.
Jennifer Johnson: Absolutely. Well, so you said... So there's two things is what I'd say is you're in act two of your category design journey. So that's one thing is that you can't just drop the category and then forget about it. One of the things is, as with everything, you have to continually assess and reassess. And as new entrants come into your category, you don't know necessarily. You can have a hypothesis of what direction it's going to take, but you don't really know until it's happening. But I think the key is evaluating and adjusting, and adapting. And what I'd say what's so great about what you're doing is, now you're supersizing your initial category with your new category, which builds on that, which is brilliant. Right? So continually staying-
Tricia Gellman: Because to your point-
Jennifer Johnson: ...a step ahead.
Tricia Gellman: ...right? To your point, we said that all these people came into the category, which is awesome because we have a big category, over a 100 people there now. But I mean, companies, not people. But then the way it's now positioned is not exactly where we would want to have taken it. Because it's kind of a group of people now all participating. And so we decided we couldn't really co- opt our initial category to talk about what we wanted. And we therefore need to supersize.
Jennifer Johnson: Yep. You're on the right path. And I'd say most companies that are building categories don't even get to the point that you're at. So bravo to you and to the company for even getting to this point. Because most even don't.
Tricia Gellman: The team's done an amazing job. I mean, I've only been here a little over a year. And I came into this great category creation already. So big shoes to fill. And we can talk about that later in terms of the role of the CMO has so many different things to do. But I could have come into this role and said," Oh, we already have this one category. We'll just kind of go along with the path. It's fine to not be talking about something that's its own category anymore." What's your perspective on whether you need to actually create a category? Is it the answer? So many people think it's a cool buzzword. But is it the answer or is it better? I know some companies who, their whole mantra is to just unseed a company that's already created a category and is a leader in the category. It's almost like the Avis to Hertz strategy, right? Like," Don't be number one, but go in there and have a very differentiated message to just own number two."
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. And look, obviously category design has always been important. But it's got a lot of buzz, I think in the last 10 years. And really what's driving it is not just the book that Play Bigger wrote, but also CEOs and boards understand that you need to have a differentiated point of view and a differentiated message, because we've all seen those market maps where there's literally a 1, 000 logos in it. And if you don't position yourself, and you're going to get positioned in a box that somebody else owns. And so there's a whole host of reasons why category design is a good thing. But I will also say that, is category design right for every company? No. And not because it's not important, but it's because you have to also be ready to do it. So the exercise of having a differentiated point of view and message, and all of that, every company needs to do that. So no matter what, whether you have a category or not, you need to have a point of view. And you need to be solving a problem, and you need to be solving it in a different way. That's just I think table stakes for any high growth, disruptive company out there. Is category design, right? Well, the point of view will feed the category. But you don't necessarily need to go out with the full category on day one, because you also need to recognize the company's ability to drive change. And that's both internal and external, right? You have to be ready to do it internally. And you have to have support from the CEO and the entire leadership, all the way down. And if there is resistance that comes up, because it's changed management for a company. And if resistance comes up, there has to be a way to get past it, or it will not be successful. And then I think there's also the ability to drive change externally. Your ability to define and build a category is directly correlated to your ability to drive change in the market. And I think there's a lot of reasons why smaller startup companies would want to do this, enter the market in the right way. The flip side of that though is, do they have enough brand equity? Do they have enough of the juice to actually get it going? So I think you can make a case either way, right? Big company or small company, what's the right time? I think a lot of it is just dependent on the company and where they're at.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. And I think it's only become harder, honestly. Because the market is so noisy now, especially with people working from home, or some people going to work, some people going home. I mean, there's just so many new pieces of competition for people's time and mindshare that you really have to be purposeful. And I think a good point for you is that if you're a really small startup, that potentially you don't have the funding and you don't have the resources to even go do the work to create the category in the market. In which case, you don't need to push the envelope.
Jennifer Johnson: Yep. Have a differentiated point of view. Period. And then if you have the infrastructure and resources, and the desire and the company to go drive a bigger category, go do it. Right? And that's what I would say to everyone. It's not for everyone. That doesn't mean it's not important, but it's not for everyone.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. I think in building the category and having the right resources, being able to drive the change is also about influencing others, and sort of creating a bigger set of noise than you yourself can create. Right? When Drift six years ago was just starting out. They weren't that big, right? They fit into this category of being small, really not having that many people, et cetera. But they're able to make a lot of noise by kind of co- opting a lot of other people from other categories or third parties. And so maybe something to talk about now would be, who are some of the key third parties? And analysts come to mind. Or that you think are important in category creation?
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. I mean, I think if you look, clearly get some of your forward- leaning innovative customers, we all have them, right? Our customers kind of all sit on different ends of the spectrum. But everyone has those very innovative forward- leaning customers, whatever market you're in. Lean on them to help you drive it. Because it's a lot of social proof, right? People want to do what others are doing in their peer groups. So I'd say find those customers, partners too. Find those innovative forward- leaning partners that are going to help you break into a new market, for example. And really lean on them. The analysts, so it's... I laugh, because this is always the million dollar question. Right? And so it goes back to a point you made at the very beginning. When I was at Andreessen Horowitz, there was a presentation by a Gartner Research VP. And he had this slide. I will never forget it. It says," Why your new category isn't." And it was this whole thing about, we as companies we're so disruptive, we don't fit into any one magic quadrant. Which is every company that's disruptive is going to say that, because it's actually true, right? You don't fit into one box neatly. And so you need to create your own box, your own MQ, right? And so people just assume," Oh, go to the analysts. And they'll go build the category." Well, the way that analysts work, if we know anything about working with analysts is, they track markets when they are markets, when they have multiple companies in them. They're not going to create a magic quadrant with one company in it. So they track a market when it's actually an established market. And by then, someone else has set the agenda if it's not you. So there's a little bit of philosophical misalignment. Now, I'm not at all saying that analysts are not good. I'm not saying that you shouldn't work with them. They are very important for many, many reasons. But when it comes to category design, I think having a real strategy around what you're trying to do with the analyst is really important. Because usually you have some core market that's your anchor core. And then you're building a super set on top of it. That's a very natural motion. The analysts will probably most likely be covering your core market. That's probably nine times out of 10. They're going to have some coverage on your core, whether it's an MQ or not. Right? You want to make sure that you have leadership in that core market. Because in most cases, having leadership in that core market is the reason you can go chart the bigger category. So you want to make sure that you understand how to work with your analyst to make sure you have leadership in your core market. And then usually what happens is, when you build a bigger category, you might be in part of one MQ and part of another MQ, and part of another MQ, or a wave if it's Forrester, right? That's usually what happens. And so you have to be really thoughtful, because you could spend all of your time just doing analyst briefings. So you all have to be really thoughtful about what you're trying to achieve with all those different markets. And do you really want to be in them as a core? Or do you want to just be a mention in one of them? So you need to have a strategy.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. I mean, I think that that's what happened with us. And I would say it is really frustrating, being a CMO, trying to work with the analyst when there isn't a magic quadrant. And especially if you're trying to sell a market into the enterprise, you know the power of being the leader in the top- right corner of the MQ, and how that helps to unlock revenue and everything else. But I mean, it is this dance. And I think at Drift, we've definitely tried. And at previous companies as well, we've been a little bit ahead of an MQ or anything. But I think it's always useful to talk to the analyst to get their perspectives on what they're hearing from their clients, and the market that you're selling into. Because they can really expose blind spots for you of what you think is this amazing new messaging and category, and really their perception of whether the customers care for it or not.
Jennifer Johnson: Yep. That's totally true. And I mean, validating your category with the analysts, I think there's the school of thought of," Well, we're doing something that's ahead of where they're at. They're looking in the rear view mirror, so why get their feedback?" But there's another school of thought of, they can actually be a good validation source for you. And just as an analyst likes to have feedback into a product roadmap, they like to have feedback into your narrative as well. And so there's value in that. I think also where you go into the MQ, it's this big debate, right? Everyone wants to be in the top- right. And if you listen to an analyst, they'll tell you," Well, every quadrant is good, because each one means something different. And we don't mean that one is better than the other. But we all know how it's been interpreted is that if you're in the top- right, you're the leader." I also think the visionary. It's great to be the visionary. So that's not a bad outcome if you are creating a new category. Because it's basically validating that you're thinking about it differently. The third thing I'd say is, have your customers put inquiries into the analyst, because they don't like to be flat- footed. And if they start getting inquiries on something new from their end users, which are your customers, they're going to start paying more attention. So you can continue to educate the analysts. But actually what I've found actually as effective is having your customers start lobbing inquiries in. And doing it from both directions.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah, I love that. One of the things that we haven't talked about this before, but as we talk through it, I wonder, are there specific roles in the marketing organization that you think are critical to do all of this work? Whether it's category design or the actual creation out in the market? Because yes, if you're going to do three to five magic quadrants, I would say, I need a massive product marketing organization to go work with the analysts all the time. But what's your perspective on the roles within the team that you really need to have as A players?
Jennifer Johnson: So every team... And I think of the marketing organization as the three- legged stool of communications, demand gen, and product marketing. So I'm going to simplify it. Right? And if I looked at those three, they all play a role. If I were to say, probably the most critical one for both building and developing it is product marketing. Because you need to translate the category messaging and positioning down to the product messaging and positioning. And so you have to have that translation point. So product marketing needs to be able to catch it, and actually then translate it into product marketing. So that's key. And I always put analyst relations in product marketing as well. So I know comms is a commonplace for it. But I keep it as close to product as possible. And so I mean, those are two reasons why having product marketing is probably, I'd say number one. I think comms is number two, because you can utilize strategic communications as a way to continue to develop your category. It's the air cover of the category development. And then I'd say demand gen third, not because it's not relevant. But because I think of category is the umbrella vision. And I think of demand gen and campaigns, and field marketing in digital, as more of the ground war. And so you sometimes have to kind of bring it down one level. If the category is really at the top level, then what are the initiatives, the solutions underneath them that might be budgeted projects, things like the specific personas care about, speaking to a specific problem for that persona. And that's really where you want to probably build a lot of your demand gen around it. But the category is really the vision umbrella that covers it all.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. Awesome. It's great to talk to you about category creation. I mean, we've had other guests. But I think everyone brings different inputs. So our previous guest was much more tried and true product marketing leader, now CMO. But really came up from product marketing. And so their perspective is much more on that sort of messaging, and how you use it and structure it. How did you become so passionate about category creation? And with that, how did you get involved with the Play Bigger crew?
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. So I'm actually also a product marketer turned CMO. And I think that product marketing skills that you gain on positioning and understanding the competitive landscape, and understanding the product, all those things actually do you well when you're thinking about category design, because a lot of it is strategic positioning. And so it kind of just was, I just naturally gravitated towards it from that perspective because of where I grew up, so to speak. How I got to know Play Bigger. So I think I was a campaign manager at Mercury Interactive in the early 2000s. And my CMO there was Christopher Lochhead who is one of the authors of the book. And now is a multi book author and a podcaster, and talks about category design a lot. And so I got a chance-
Tricia Gellman: Yeah, we inaudible.
Jennifer Johnson: Oh, yeah. He's great.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah, we've had him. He's hyper- growth, he's spoken. He's definitely a friendly of ours.
Jennifer Johnson: Yep. He's awesome. And so yeah, I learned category design for the first time in Mercury, working for him. And then I got reintroduced to Play Bigger again as a CMO between one role and the next. And I worked with them as Play Bigger. And then one of my other very dear friends, Dave Peterson, who is Played Bigger and now the CMO of Slowness, was Play Bigger at the time. And I worked with them on a couple of category design engagements. And then I went into Tenable before my current role. And then I did category design for Tenable, and it was the story that we eventually went public around. And so I won't say that I'm doing it now for Amplitude, but you can probably guess. You can probably guess what I'm-
Tricia Gellman: crosstalk is-
Jennifer Johnson: ...working on.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. I think anywhere you go, there's some amount of category creation going on. Because if not, I don't know, maybe you have a second career or you're going to go off and crosstalk-
Jennifer Johnson: It's a pretty good-
Tricia Gellman: ...dogs or something.
Jennifer Johnson: ...assumption at this point.
Tricia Gellman: That's awesome. So let's say that you have launched your category. What would you tell people is their best action plan once they've launched their category?
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. So I think it's taking stock of... I go through each stakeholder, press, analysts, customers, partners, and investors. And I look at kind of where the current perception is of your company, of your category, of what the status quo is, and how attached each one is to it. And so that might look differently. So for press, it might be what are they writing about? For analysts, how they're tracking the market. For customers, it's what technology or what's the current process of how they do things to solve the problem? And then you look at where they're at, and where you want them to be, which is your category. And in some cases it might be a short jump to get from old to new. In some cases it might be a really big jump to get from old to new. And then you build a roadmap for it. And that's how I... It's actually a great way to frame your marketing strategy, because really, if you think about, we call them lightning strikes in the Play Bigger model. And it's once a year, twice a year, whatever that is, right? It's where you go out, and every message is revolving around your category. But really what it's doing is it's moving one more stakeholders from old to new, getting them a little bit closer. So once you have that framing and you know, then you can actually start to map out your marketing strategy and your launch strategy, and your campaign strategy around having one or two lightning strikes a year and what those look it. It helps just put a lot of things, I think, in perspective. So I like framing and frameworks, and things like that. And category design actually does give you a framework. So building out. And then you can build out really a three year roadmap. So if you know what the category is, you actually know what is going to layer in over time, because you can't do everything on day one. And you wrote a book, for example, right? And so that could be... That's a lightning strike right there. You're writing a book on your category. And that doesn't happen necessarily the day you launched the category, but you know, you're like," Okay, we're going to do this. And then we're going to do this. And then we're going to write a book." And you kind of lay everything out. So it's just a nice way to think about things.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. I love that. And I mean, I think this is a great episode. Because we have CMOs who just are thinking about, how do they think about their business and what they're doing. And then we have a lot of listeners who are people that would like to be CMO some time up in their career. Whether it's now, in the next year, or in five years. And I think this episode has really been great and revealing in terms of not just the words, but what's behind the words, and what does it take to be successful. We're running out of time on this episode. And so I want to wrap up with my signature question, which is a lesson. But I know we're going to do a short second episode. So I want to have this lesson be about category creation. So if you think back on your career, what's one lesson you would share with people relative to your interest in category creation?
Jennifer Johnson: Get alignment. Make sure you get alignment. And it's tough. But I swear, it's much less painful when you get alignment and kind of get over conflict or any humps, any potholes in the road early on. Because it becomes exponentially more difficult to get past them the further along you get. So go through it at the beginning. It'll be painful for a little while, but you'll come out much better on the other side.
Tricia Gellman: Thank you for listening to today's episode with Jennifer Johnson, AKA, JJ. We're going to wrap this episode here. There's so much to talk about that we'll be back in two weeks with JJ, where we talk about the ever- evolving role as a CMO. If you loved this episode, please go to wherever it is that you get your podcasts, and give us a six star review. If you're really passionate about CMO content, then check out my newsletter. I release it every other week. And until the next episode, have a great week. And I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Whether you have a category or not, you need to have a point of view, you need to be solving a problem, and you need to be solving it in a different way.
☝️ That's what Jennifer Johnson (aka JJ, the CMO of Amplitude) said when Tricia asked her if category design was right for every company. Spoiler alert: it's not. On this episode of CMO Conversations, JJ talks about what happens during each phase of category design, how she got involved with Play Bigger, her advice for working with analysts, and the importance of having a differentiated opinion.
Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the pod with your friends. You can connect with Tricia and JJ on Twitter @triciagellman @jj_cmo @DriftPodcasts